What's the Point of Negative Feedback?

"If you're an asshole, don't try not to be an asshole. Be a really good asshole.

  • Howard Behar

Imagine you're in a room with Bill Gates, or Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos. It doesn't matter. Pick your favorite billionaire. Insert them here -> 🤡. Hey little guy. You're in the board room with Mr. Billonaire and a bunch of their "yes sir thank you sir" folks, and it's your turn to talk.

In your head you're thinking "now is my chance. I'm going to tell him exactly what he's doing wrong."

You let it loose.

"Mr. Billionaire, you come across as a huge douche. You believe you want to change the world for the better, but everyone just sees you riding your penis rocket into space."

Mr. Billionaire's eyes widen. He's never heard such frank and honest feedback from his team before. Finally, after taking a long beat, he responds.

"Thank you so much for telling me this. I don't want to be a douche. I want to make a change. Please help me. I want you with me 24/7 to make sure I'm doing right by the citizens of the planet."

Of course that's not his response.

It's more like: "Thanks for sharing. It's very helpful."

And you're never invited to be anywhere near Mr. Billionaire again. He'll end the meeting thinking "you might be right, but you're making me feel bad. I don't think I want to hang out with you anymore."

Was it worth it? It took you a lot of time and effort just to get into this room, to say your piece, and you'll never get this opportunity again. This is how "yes sir thank you sir" folks are born. They want to stay in that room. Being power-adjacent is better than being left in the cold, and sometimes in order to stay in that room, you simply need to agree.

"But I want all feedback!" Mr. Billionaire says. "The good and the bad. Will you all give it to me straight? I promise, I can take it."

"Yes sir, we will. Thank you sir."

Of course Mr. Billionaire is in a bubble. To him, the decisions he's made in his life have led him to his success. So more decisions = more success, right? Well, right! Seriously. In the long view, with these billionaires only being surrounded by "yes sirs" for decades, it looks like the ship is still running very well indeed.

Where should negative feedback go?

What's the point of it? Management and leadership theories often suggest that giving and receiving feedback, conducting 360 reviews, and listening to others can lead to successful outcomes. However, many HBS case studies on businesses that have defined a generation show that their leadership teams didn't do that at all.

How has time treated the darlings of every business book of the aughts? Zappos? It's a mediocre shoe distributor. The founder got addicted to drugs and killed himself. Southwest Airlines? A commodity that's virtually indiscernible from any other airline. These were the poster-companies of "listening," creating safe spaces for all ideas, embracing negative feedback.

If Bezos had a 360 review to surface his "weaknessesses" so he could "correct" them, how would that affect the outcome of Amazon? Ultimately, we're talking about:

  1. Personality

  2. Style

360s (and review systems) drive a regression to the mean; a robotic leader who listens just the right amount, pushes the right amount, is ambitious, but not too ambitious. Ultimately, it is a leadership that lacks personality, or any one style.

After considering all of this, I am left with the question: what is the net positive effect of negative feedback? Does it truly change outcomes, or is it just a nice thing to ask for? One of the most notorious feedback-rejecters in history became president, after all.

I think about my own experience with negative feedback. I have what I believe is an above-average exposure to it, as I have solicited it for years. For example, I've learned things about myself like:

  1. I have a high sense of urgency. I like making decisions and moving on. That can sometimes mean I'm short with people, or look like I'm trying to get out of the room.

  2. I need to be in charge of the big picture. I do not take orders well unless I have complete implicit trust that the other person is a domain expert, or if the situation is low-risk.

  3. I need to own product vision. I believe strongly that our product's quality is the cornerstone of our company, and I am reluctant to delegate important product vision decisions without discussion.

  4. I have little patience for meetings and don't like endless "riffing" on an idea.

We are taught to solicit and embrace negative feedback. Why? At the outset it's to make sure we're minimizing weaknesses, and growing personally, but I don't think that's the purpose at all. Allowing for negative feedback is not to process it to lead to some better outcome, but to create a safe space for... that's right, getting more negative feedback!

I have come to the conclusion that negative feedback has not necessarily led to any tangible improvements in myself or my company. I think its purpose is to create a safe space for others to express their thoughts and feelings, and to allow them to let go of the burden they may be carrying. In this way, soliciting and embracing negative feedback can be seen as a kind and compassionate act, rather than a means to improve oneself. he feedback isn't for you to take. It's for them to give. ack to billionaires. Why don't they take feedback? Because they don't need to be compassionate or kind in order to keep you around. You'll probably stay anyway.

There. I'm glad I got that off my chest.

Written on Dec 15th, 2022